The NES & Master System: Inevitable Comparisons

Back in May, I talked a little bit about my first exposure to the NES. As someone who didn’t have one, and who was instead gaming on the rival Sega Master System, the NES was not only something I had limited access to, but it was a console I greatly desired. I would try to fool myself into thinking that I didn’t really want one, and that my Master System was better, but absurdity has its limits.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the Master System. As evidenced by my post about the classic RPG Phantasy Star, it played host to a good number of excellent 8-bit titles. It just couldn’t hold a candle to Nintendo’s marketing, third-party policies, and resulting massive library of games. Even the console-specific print magazines were hilariously mismatched: Nintendo Power was this thick, robust magazine full of features, maps, letters, art, hints, reviews, and cool game advertisements. Meanwhile, Sega Challenge was a tiny, low-budget pamphlet that was maybe 16 pages long. I thought it was cool, but you wouldn’t want to bring it to school. You’d get laughed at, and get laughed at I did.

And so, for the three years that I had my Master System, I quietly enjoyed its games while playing a lot of NES games at my friends’ houses. However, even when I was there playing those games, I’d wind up comparing what I was playing to what I had on the Master System. Usually, what I was seeing on the NES was better.

One that really stands out in my mind is Sega’s Pro Wrestling vs. Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling.


In screenshots, you could argue that in some ways, the Master System version above looks a little better. It’s more colorful, its gameplay is tag-team style, players have energy meters, and the ring itself has some 3D perspective. However, that’s where its so-called advantages end.


The NES version, on the other hand, was just a revelation when I first played it. It not only had a really catchy title screen tune, but it was followed by large, beautiful portraits of each of the game’s wrestlers, with stats and other bits of information that made them feel much more human than the generic cast of the Master System game. It was all the little touches that elevated it as well: The ringside commentators, the cameraman filming the action, the fact that you could go outside the ring, the more realistic wrestler animations and interactions, etc. The list goes on and on.

After playing the NES game, I was embarrassed to even show anyone the Master System title! It had its charms with its super-deformed and very Japanese graphics, but it would never appeal to western audiences the way Nintendo’s game would. It truly was a night and day difference, and it remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling games.

Another pair of titles that showed the stark difference between the consoles was Sega’s own arcade conversion of Out Run and little-known (at the time) Square’s Rad Racer.


Again, upon first glance, the Sega game looks pretty good. The Ferrari Testarossa, the track layouts, and the visuals are a decent approximation of the arcade version, which is still a looker to this day. I remember being quite impressed with the screenshots, and when it finally came out as a 2 megabit (256 KB) cartridge in 1987, I couldn’t wait to play it.

And when I did? Man, was I let down. The graphics were so choppy, and even though I knew it wasn’t going to be as smooth as the arcade due to lack of hardware sprite scaling, it just felt way under-cooked. Most disappointingly, the music barely did the arcade soundtrack justice, which is one of its highlights.


Released the same year on the NES, Rad Racer is basically an Out Run clone right down to the Ferrari and opening beach setting, but without the branching paths. I tried to write it off in my mind as just a cheap copy until I actually played it. Wow, I was blown away yet again! Rad Racer moves along at a brisk 60 frames-per-second compared to the choppy mess that is Out Run on the Master System.

Roadside obstacles and scenery scroll past your vehicle smoothly, and while the graphics themselves aren’t as detailed as they are in Out Run, the smooth framerate, convincingly undulating roadways, and responsive gameplay give it a polished, high-quality feel.

Rad Racer also one-ups its competition by letting the player change the music station from within the game instead of being stuck with one song the entire time. Additionally, it has on-the-fly anaglyph 3D mode, which lets you use the included blue & red 3D glasses for a gaming experience that was very cool and unique at the time.

Being such a popular game, Space Harrier wasn’t immune to this either, with Square once again “paying homage” to it that same year with their own run & gunner, The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner.

Although vastly inferior to the arcade original, I loved the Master System version of Space Harrier. For the hardware it’s on, it looks great, has gigantic, screen-filling bosses, bonus content, and good versions of the game’s iconic music.

It’s somewhat choppy, though, and the techniques used to create such large visuals means there are flat, square-like edges around everything, and that detracts from the overall effect.


By contrast, 3-D WorldRunner is cartoon-like and not very interesting to look at in screenshots, but much like Rad Racer, it’s something entirely different in motion, moving smoothly at a near-constant 60 FPS. It has fun backgrounds like Sega’s own Fantasy Zone, and a similarly lighthearted tone.

While I remember it being criticized for just being a Space Harrier clone, I thought it was unique enough. Sure, it’s set in a very similar world with creatures and obstacles that bear more than a passing resemblance to Sega’s creations, but the run & jump gameplay sets it apart, as does the 3D feature, similar to that found in Rad Racer.

It’s one of those examples where I would say they are as unique as they are alike. I enjoy both games for different reasons, even though one was obviously influenced by the other. As they said in 1996’s Swingers, “Everybody steals from everybody; that’s Hollywood.”

Similarly, we see this — and will continue to see this — all the time in the videogame industry. How many “match three” games are there on Google Play and the Apple App Store? By today’s standards, Space Harrier and 3-D World Runner are very different games.

As an aside, I wish Square would go back and make more games like this again, or at least work with the Japanese developer M2 to make good 3D conversions of them for systems like the Nintendo 3DS.

These are just a few of the many examples of genre and style crossover between the competing consoles. Sega would also bring out games that were déjà vu familiar to what was already on the NES, like Compile’s Golvellius: Valley of Doom. This is what Sega owners got instead of The Legend of Zelda.


Golvellius had great music, and side and vertically scrolling action sequences replaced the dungeons found in Zelda, but the bulk of the game was spent in a very similar overworld, complete with hidden caves, vague hints, shopkeepers, and other near-homologous design elements.

It’s hard to deny that both of the opening landscapes had quite a lot in common, but as a Master System owner used to a slow trickle of quality games, Golvellius went down as one of my favorites back in 1988.


The Legend of Zelda would, of course, go on to become one of the most memorable and timeless classics on any console.

Content is king, as they say, and the NES — despite the many stinkers that called it their home — had so many more great games that victory was a foregone conclusion.

Then there were those times where neither game was all that good. Rambo: First Blood Part II (SMS) and Ikari Warriors (NES) come to mind, which were both part of the popular vertically scrolling military shooters at the time.


Rambo had decent visuals, and the gameplay was rather smooth, but it was slow. Painfully slow.

The thing about both of these games is that they are based on controls that were impossible at home at the time: a joystick that could simultaneously control the on-screen character and independently aim their gun in any of 8 different directions. This meant that at home, whichever way you were facing, that’s where you were firing, making strafing impossible. That was a huge part of Ikari Warriors‘ appeal, and would thankfully be addressed in its follow-up, Victory Road.


And speaking of Ikari Warriors, what a mess. Choppy, simplistic graphics and a pace that felt even slower and more punishing than Rambo. I played this around the same time as Capcom’s 1942 on the NES and remember thinking, “Man, this console absolutely sucks for arcade ports!”, but as I discussed back in May, Rush’n Attack changed my opinion on that completely.

As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there were a lot of games that seemed strikingly similar to one another.  It’s interesting to think back on the fact that it was pretty rare for the same game to be on competing consoles, even through the 16-bit era. A few come to mind, like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and Earthworm Jim, but it seemed like the exception, rather than the norm.

Each individual system played host to a slew of exclusives you couldn’t play anywhere else, despite their similarities. It’s a very different landscape today, and while it is apples and oranges to this discussion, it’s not so much about having the exclusive title anymore, but more about who has the exclusive content or lead release window.

I wouldn’t mind a return to the basics. Speaking of which, I think I’ll play a little Rad Racer right now.


Backlog Blitz: The games of June 2014


June hurt. A lot. Although I didn’t spend a lot of money ($63.75), I only finished 2 games worth $20.00. With the year already halfway over, heading into July with only a +2 advantage isn’t the most positive of omens. Let’s hope the rest of the year turns things around! Anyway, the format, as with previous updates, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

Games purchased (-9, $63.75 spent):

  1. 20140701_lego_cityLego City Undercover (Wii U, $5.00)
    The Lego games — and the work of Traveller’s Tales in general — have been hit or miss with me in the past, but I’ve heard great things about this one. Having played through and thoroughly enjoyed Grand Theft Auto V earlier this year, I’m eager to try this, a more family-friendly open-world action game.
  2. Picross e4 (3DS, $6.00)
    This was mainly a purchase for my wife, who loves all things Picross. I didn’t even know that these eShop versions existed until I just happened upon them while browsing through the store a few weeks ago. So far, a thumbs-up from her, so things are looking good!
  3. Aban Hawkins & the 1001 Spikes (Wii U, $6.50)
    Nicalis is one of my favorite indie developer/publishers — responsible for the excellent 3DS versions of Cave Story and VVVVVV — and it didn’t take much beyond its weird trailer to convince me that I’d be buying this on day one. Just started it, and it’s fantastic.
  4. NES Remix 2 (Wii U, $10.00)
    After giving the first NES Remix a second chance, I ended up really liking it, so picking up the second one was a no-brainer. Game selection looks better, and there are a number of changes and improvements to it that should make it an even more enjoyable trip down memory lane.
  5. Far Cry 3 (PC, $7.50)
    And then came the Steam Summer Sale, which unfortunately accounts for this and most of the remaining games below. I’ve never played any of the Far Cry games, but I’ve heard really good things about this particular installment. The trailer shown at E3 for Far Cry 4 looked intriguing, so I might as well get educated on what this series is all about.
  6. 20140701_far_cry_3_bdFar Cry 3: Blood Dragon (PC, $3.75)
    A total impulse buy, I have no idea what this is about, except that everyone who has played it says it’s one of the coolest things from 2013. Looks like it’s chock-full of ’80s and 16-bit nostalgia, so that sounds like it’s right up my alley.
  7. New Super Luigi U (Wii U, $17.50)
    I’ve been waiting for a good price on the retail version of this New Super Mario Bros. U DLC, and I finally found one. The original game was one of my favorites on the Wii U, and is up there with New Super Mario Bros. Wii as my favorite of the “New” series.
  8. Spelunky (PC, $3.75)
    Took me a while to finally buy this, and the Steam Sale made it possible for a great price. I played a good chunk of the non-HD version years ago, so I’m looking forward to losing myself in this enhanced version.
  9. BattleBlock Theater (PC, $3.75)
    Another impulse purchase based on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a platformer by The Behemoth (Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers), which sounds like a winning combination to me!

Games finished (+2, $20.00 value):

  1. 20140701_nes_remixNES Remix (Wii U, $15.00, 15 hrs.)
    Although I still can’t get over how bad the controls are in games like Ice Climber, Urban Champion, and the original Mario Bros. (non-Super), this is still a great compilation that will make you look at the NES era in entirely new ways. I’m glad I gave it another chance, because I ended up really enjoying it. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  2. DuckTales (NES, $5.00, 4 hrs.)
    This is a short game, but it’ll definitely take you several playthroughs to extract everything there is out of it. But even after that, you’ll likely come back for more. This is a unique, fun platformer that proudly does its license justice. Good graphics, great music, fun gameplay, and nonlinear level design. Overall: B+ (Review Link)

And with that, we head into the second half of 2014! If E3 is any indicator, it’s going to take some serious willpower to make it through the rest of the year in positive territory.


Review: DuckTales (NES, 1989)

Oh, the licensed videogame. They have a notoriously bad reputation — especially those aimed at the younger crowd — and even though I won’t deny there are a lot of terrible ones out there, I think there are just as many great ones. Really, the same can be said for non-licensed games and how many stinkers have been produced. It’s very easy to get caught up in the negativity, but I’d rather focus on the positives: those games that elevate the very things they’re based on.


One such game is Disney’s DuckTales, developed by Capcom, and released on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1989. It’s considered one of the best NES games by many players, and 2013’s DuckTales: Remastered from WayForward Technologies is proof of its lasting popularity. It’s also — if the internet is correct — one of the earliest examples of a licensed Disney console title, at least from the NES forward.

It sets the bar pretty high from the get-go. The colorful title screen featuring Scrooge McDuck is attractive and is accompanied by the series’ iconic theme song. I just love that 8-bit sound! Capcom was at the top of their game that year, with the wildly popular Mega Man 2 having been released a few months prior, as well as the criminally underrated Willow. DuckTales shares more than a few similarities to the Mega Man series, particularly with its open structure and some would say, its difficulty.


This isn’t Ghosts’n Goblins or Battletoads hard, but don’t let the Disney license fool you: DuckTales can be a challenging game. It requires good coordination and practice, especially to master its signature move: Uncle Scrooge’s Pogo-jump. To do it, you jump in the air, press down + attack, and continue to hold them after the first successful bounce. After that, you can just hold down the attack button and pogo around. It’s fun and powerful — it’s the only way to reach many of the game’s ledges — but you can’t control the height of your bounce, certain enemies are immune to it, and getting too close to ledges will cancel it out. This adds a new layer of complexity and strategy to navigating levels, and it’s one of DuckTales‘ defining features. It’s also the primary way to uncover hidden treasures throughout, of which there are many.

Speaking of Scrooge’s cane, it’s not just for bouncing around. It’s a rather cool and context-sensitive weapon that you can use to hit environmental items to more easily take care of enemies. Swinging at canisters and rocks will send them flying across the screen, keeping you out of harm’s way. You can face those enemies head-on, but you’ll quickly learn of more creative ways to get around them. This encourages the player to experiment with their surroundings. You can also swing at bigger objects to uncover even more goodies; if they contain nothing, Scrooge’s head will humorously shake from the impact.


When you begin, three hits will end you, and you will get hit. Enemy placement is very thoughtful though, and those looking to quickly run through to get to the end won’t make it far. Level checkpoints are sparse, lives are limited, recovery time is short, and there is a timer working against you. I don’t like that timer, even though it’s a generous one. Stages can (and should!) be thoroughly searched, but I think time limits can really discourage exploration in games. To be fair, once you learn your way around, completing stages can be done quickly and you do get a money bonus at the end. However, I was still happy to hear that this was taken out of the Remastered version.

The bosses themselves are a bit of a disappointment. They’re small, and most players will only have trouble with one or two of them. The rest display simple patterns that only take a few seconds to figure out and overcome. In fact, I found several of the game’s standard enemies to be more troublesome than the bosses.


Graphically, DuckTales looks great. Scrooge is animated well, and small details, like how his top hat briefly pops off of his head when he… ducks, are wonderful touches. At times, he’ll walk behind foreground elements, which is always a cool detail that creates a convincing sense of depth. You’ll also briefly run into various characters from the cartoon, including Huey, Dewey, Louie, Webby, and Launchpad McQuack.

The music is an often-cited high point of DuckTales, and it has good reason to be. “The Moon”, easily one of the most recognizable songs from the NES era, is up there with “Dr. Wily’s Castle” from Capcom’s own Mega Man 2 in the “How many times has it been covered on YouTube?” department. It’s an inspired song, and always ranks high on videogame music lists. Another standout track is “The Himalayas”, which perfectly matches the tone of the game.


DuckTales is short, but Capcom packed in a lot of content within its 5 stages. There’s some cheap recycling going on — you’ll revisit one area not just once, but twice — but overall, the game provides a good amount of variety within its branching levels. There are lots of hidden areas, and it even has three different endings, depending on how good or bad you do.

It’ll definitely take you several playthroughs to extract everything there is out of DuckTales, and even after that, you’ll likely come back for more. This is a unique, fun platformer that proudly does its license justice.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B
    Sprites are drawn well, the backgrounds have good detail, and enemies are decently animated. Character cameos included for series fans.
  • Music & Sound Effects: A
    DuckTales‘ soundtrack is great, with lots of similarities to Mega Man‘s style. Sound effects are typical of the 8-bit era, and get the job done.
  • Gameplay & Controls: B+
    Tight, precise controls make this a very enjoyable experience, and the nonlinear level design is very good. The Pogo-jump has an initially steep learning curve, which could frustrate some players, but it’s fun and unique.
  • Value: B
    There are only 5 stages, which is short even by 8-bit standards. However, there are lots of things to find, and only diligent players will get the game’s best ending.

Overall: B+


Re-Review: NES Remix (Wii U eShop)


I gave NES Remix a B- earlier this year, after losing interest in it rather quickly. When I bought it, I was expecting it to be similar to the WarioWare series, with quick, bite-sized challenges of increasing difficulty. In a way, that’s exactly what I got. However, instead of just a well-timed button press here or a tilt of the GBA there, these challenges required more effort and patience. In other words, you have to be good at these games. Did I really want to be devoting valuable time to games like Balloon Fight and Wrecking Crew, after not really caring about them in the ’80s? Those opposing forces really conflicted me, and before I knew it, I was getting frustrated trying to relearn these old 8-bit games.

But as I’ve learned time and time again, stepping away from games can often bring me back with a more open mind. After spending more time with it, digging deeper into its many challenges, my appreciation for it has definitely grown.  While I still think that the game selection itself runs the entire quality gamut from poor to excellent, what the developer Indieszero has put together here is really quite impressive.

It’d be easy to say that they just wrapped a NES emulator inside another game engine, but when you stop and think about what it took to make all of this function the way it does, it’s pretty amazing.


As a sidenote, I think one of the best features of the Wii U is the Miiverse, with its individual game communities, excellent player interaction, and what was introduced first in Super Mario 3D World: stamps.  NES Remix‘s implementation is cool in that you not only earn stamps and can use them in Miiverse posts, but they are displayed to other users, including best times and star ratings. Some of the scores I’ve seen from other players have been very impressive, as is the artwork I’ve seen. There are some incredibly talented artists out there, and I love discovering them.

My meager attempt — like the one pictured here — is just a tiny example of how you can blend hand-drawn pictures with stamps. It’s a lot of fun, the community seems to do a good job of policing itself, and the Wii U GamePad works surprisingly well for drawing.


I still have a considerable ways to go before I get 3 stars on everything, but even at this relatively late point in the game, I keep running into little fun surprises. For example, you can buy the old games featured in NES Remix on the eShop. That’s not the cool part, though. What’s cool is they created this fun Legend of Zelda-themed screen before taking you to the store. It’s a great touch that they didn’t really need to put in there, but they did anyway.

NES Remix also does a really good job of rolling out new content and challenges to the player constantly. Every time I think I’ve unlocked the last game, a new one pops up, or more Remix stages appear, and there are surprises beyond that. I loved the way Turn 10 did this in Forza Motorsport 4, and it’s just as effective and rewarding here.


I also like that there are embedded curve balls thrown into the Remix stages, so just when you think you know what you’re going to have to do, you’re asked to do things that you’ve probably never done in these games.  Those moments are the most memorable, like the one above where Luigi not only has to get through one of Donkey Kong‘s stages that has been flipped horizontally, but then make it all the way back to the beginning. Some of the other stages seem borderline unfair at times, but you can tell that the designers had a blast coming up with all sorts of ways to really mess with our decades-old muscle memory.

In closing, this has been my go-to game for the past week. Whenever I have a few minutes, I’ll immediately turn this on and collect several more stars. It’s great being able to do everything from the GamePad too; this is precisely the type of title that’s perfectly suited for it. Although I still can’t get over how bad the controls are in games like Ice Climber, Urban Champion, and the original Mario Bros. (non-Super), this is still a great compilation that will make you look at the NES era in entirely new ways.

  • Graphics & Presentation: B+
    Classic sprites with subtle touches in the Remix stages, like drop shadows that add depth. Nice interface, good Miiverse integration, and a terrific loading screen give it a polished feel.
  • Music & Sound Effects: B
    Clean, crisp audio, plus some new music and interface sound effects. You’ll likely get very tired of hearing the Miss and Game Over sounds, though.
  • Gameplay & Controls: B+
    The games are preserved here and play just like you remember. They also control just like they did in the ’80s, which is to say that some are good and some are bad. Lots of content rewards throughout keep things fresh.
  • Value: A+
    $15 seems steep, but there are over 200 challenges to complete, and they will keep you busy for a long time, especially if you go for the perfect rainbows. Good Miiverse integration keeps you chasing those high scores.

Overall: B+



The Nintendo Entertainment System, Part 1: The cool kids

Whenever I see forum threads to the tune of “What are your most shocking gaming secrets?”, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that I never owned a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). No, I instead chose to ask for a Sega Master System for Christmas back in 1986. In a lot of ways, owning a Master System was similar to what it feels like to own a Wii U today: a trickle of good first-party support, but that’s about it.


But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. While I have a lot to say about the Master System, I want to talk about the NES. Out of the group of friends I hung out with back in junior high, at least half of them had one.

While almost all of us had an Apple // computer of some kind, the NES was different. Its primary killer app was Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros., which for all intents and purposes, was a pixel-perfect translation of its arcade counterpart. Full of variety, tight gameplay, colorful graphics, and a catchy soundtrack, owning this game — and knowing all of its numerous secrets — immediately put you in the “cool” category among your peers.

20140521_kung_fuI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of my friends. It’s not like I could simply ask my parents, “I know you just bought me a Sega, but how about that Nintendo too?” Out of the question, and I would never build up the courage to ask. That left me with the obvious alternative: play them all at my friends’ houses!

And play I did. A lot. The NES simply had the better games, and so many more of them. The difference between the two libraries was ridiculously comical, and it’s no wonder Sega moved quickly to release the 16-bit Genesis in 1989, a mere 3 years into the Master System’s short existence.

20140521_excitebikeThe first couple years for the NES were amazing. While many genres were still in their infancy, the quality on display even at that early stage was incredible.

Take Excitebike, for example, which was already a fun game to play with great pseudo-3D graphics, but they upped the ante by including a track designer. Although its save/load functionality was far from ideal, building that in as a feature added value, while being a fun way for friends to show off to one another.

20140521gngMeanwhile, Capcom had been releasing a number of arcade-to-home conversions at that time as well. I was a big fan of their arcade games like 1942, Ghosts’n Goblins, and Commando, but their NES conversions didn’t impress me. Their graphics were really choppy and the music was hollow and tinny.

I played them to death, of course — and they did play good, which is important to note — but it was disappointing that Nintendo’s home console wasn’t able to do justice to many of my favorite arcade games.

20140521rushnattackThat would all change when my friend received Konami’s Rush’n Attack for his birthday in 1987. Although I was already a fan of Konami’s games like Castlevania and Gradius, it was Rush’n Attack that for the very first time made me realize that home versions of arcade games could be better than the originals.

While the NES version’s color palette and animation weren’t as detailed, it ran more smoothly, felt better control-wise, and it blew my mind with one of the best soundtracks of that era, which still sounds great today.

It was from that point forward that Konami became synonymous with quality for me. They would really falter in later generations, but back then, it was rare for them to put out a complete dud.

The years that followed would further solidify the NES as arguably the all-time best videogame console. It would play host to many games that are to this day considered the greatest ever made.